The Baltimore Orioles entered 2017 in a familiar position. The offense would mash, the bullpen would dominate and a weak rotation would be along for the ride. It was a common formula for Baltimore, one that has produced a couple postseason appearances over the past few years.
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This time around, though, things would be more challenging. Before the season even started, Chris Tillman went down with an injury. That meant the already thin rotation would have to be carried by former elite prospect Dylan Bundy. Given his injuries and lack of experience over the past few seasons, that seemed like a huge ask.
Through six starts, Bundy has exceeded even the most optimistic projections. The 24-year-old right-hander has easily been the team’s best pitcher, posting a sterling 1.82 ERA over 39 2/3 innings.
Bundy will look to continue his hot start in Saturday’s Free MLB Game of the Day here on Yahoo Sports. Bundy and the Orioles will take on Jose Abreu and the surprising Chicago White Sox. The contest, which starts at 7:05 p.m. ET, can be streamed for free on the Yahoo Sports MLB page, on our Free Game of the Day tab or in this very post. Local blackout restrictions apply.
One of the big reasons for Bundy’s early success has been the use of his cutter. As an amateur, Bundy’s cutter received plenty of praise from scouts. But once he joined the Orioles, the team made him scrap the pitch. That strategy was part of the team’s organizational philosophy at the time. They didn’t want their young pitchers to throw cutters.
That stance appears to have softened with time. Either the Orioles are finally willing to let their youngsters use the pitch, or they realize a healthy Bundy is best served by having the cutter in his arsenal.
Now that he has the green light, Bundy has reintroduced his bread and butter pitch back into his repertoire. After not throwing it at all in 2016, Bundy has used his cutter 23.6 percent of the time in 2017, according to Brooks Baseball. Brooks Baseball classifies the pitch as a slider, though Bundy has referred to it as a cutter.
Whatever it is, it’s working. Opposing batters have had a tough time with the pitch, and are hitting just .206, with a .324 slugging percentage against it so far this season. It’s also been crucial for getting whiffs. Bundy’s cutter has a 26.35 percent whiff rate. For comparison, Bundy’s second-best pitch, his changeup, has a 7.69 percent whiff rate.
While Bundy has used the pitch against every hitter, he really breaks it out against righties. Bundy has thrown the cutter 34 percent of the time against same-handed hitters. It’s one of the major reasons he’s held righties to a .218/.265/.338 slash line to open the year. It’s been an incredibly promising development from a pitcher who peaked at No. 3 on Baseball America’s top-100 prospect list in 2013.
And yet, Bundy still faces some obstacles if he hopes to continue this performance. Though his best pitch is back, Bundy has had a tough time striking out hitters in 2017. His 16.6 percent strikeout rate is far below last year’s 21.9 mark.
Some of that may be due to Bundy’s diminished velocity, though it’s tough to know how much you should buy into those numbers. Major League Baseball switched pitch tracking software this year, which has led to some wonky results early.
On top of that, Bundy shifted from reliever to starter last year, which could influence those stats. It’s true that Bundy was hitting 94 mph regularly as a starter at the end of last season, but he had all season to build up to that velocity. We don’t know what his normal velocity should look like as a starter in April. Pitcher velocity tends to increase as the year goes on, so it’s possible this is just a small blip for Bundy. He may average 93 mph by June, we don’t know.
That’s perhaps the bigger issue. Injuries have been a major problem for Bundy over his career. Tommy John surgery put him on the shelf for quite some time, and the Orioles have been cautious with him since his return. While it seems they are finally letting him loose this year, Bundy has never tossed over 110 innings in a single season. He not only has to prove he can stay healthy for a full year, but he also has to make sure he can hold up under a normal 200-inning workload. Both of those things are huge question marks.
Having the cutter back won’t solve those issues. But if the Orioles are truly going to let Bundy go all out, they might as well let him use his best pitch. If he can stay healthy, Bundy and his cutter could give the Orioles the one thing they’ve lacked in recent years: A bona fide No. 1 starter.
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